The Astros signed reliever Jesse Crain to a one-year deal on New Year's Eve, taking a chance on a player who is recovering surgery, but who has also shown the kind of elite ability that makes for an extremely valuable late-inning weapon. Crain is the third reliever that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow has signed this offseason in an attempt to re-make what was easily the worst bullpen in baseball in 2013, with a 4.92 ERA, a 5.09 FIP and a 4.62 xFIP.
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The former-White Sox is still rehabbing and may not make Opening Day, but if he returns healthy, he should do almost as much as any single available player could possibly do to improve the late-inning outlook in Houston. Crain was brilliant before the arm injury ended his 2013 season, posting a 0.76 ERA over 36 2/3 innings and an 11.3 K/9 rate against a 2.70 BB/9 rate. He also managed to not yield a single home run despite working with fly ball stuff in the homer-happy confines of US Cellular Field. Viewed as part of the Astros attempt to build a better bullpen, signing Crain is an obvious move. The team isn't ready to win now and they aren't going to lay out big money for an established closer or setup man, but a high-risk, high-reward bet like Crain is right in their sweet spot.
It's just that the very idea that the Astros would set out to re-make their bullpen almost defies logic. This is a team that lost 111 games last season. They lost 103 in 2012 and 105 in 2011. It isn't as if the bullpen went out and squandered 70 or 80 winnable games. The 2013 Astros had the third worst starting pitching by ERA (4.72) and the fourth worse by FIP (4.42). Their offense was outscored by 26 of the 30 teams in the majors and they had the fourth worse park-adjusted offense in the game. Bolstering the Astros bullpen for 2014 is basically analogous to the building of fallout shelters during the Cold War; it gives the illusion of preparedness, but you don't need to be a nuclear physicist to realize it probably won't do a darn thing to prevent the tragedy that appears to be at hand.
In the early days of the 2014 season, a better bullpen could turn the Astros from a 100-loss club to a 95 loss club- or even- dare to dream- from a 95 loss club to one that doesn't even lose 90 games. By the end of the season, it won't matter how amazing the new bullpen is because Houston won't be playing meaningful baseball in August or September. It is in that context that the Jesse Crain signing should be viewed and in that light, it looks like one of the best moves Luhnow could have possibly made this off-season. Crain can't save the Astros season, but he can bring them something of significant value in return at the deadline and that means a great deal to a Houston team that is well on its way to contending in the semi-distance future.
The current CBA doesn't provide teams with many loopholes to exploit in their efforts to rebuild should their major league club and farm system all collapse at once. Under the previous CBA, teams could find players headed to Type A and Type B compensation designations and pick up extra draft picks left and right. They could also spend wildly on the international market, securing young talent from outside the country without limitations. Though many aspects of the new CBA are aimed at eliminating the competitive advantages enjoyed by richer clubs, they have had the effect of narrowing down the number routes a franchise can take in a complete overhaul effort. Some teams have gone out and given veterans like Stephen Drew or Mike Napoli one-year deals with their eye on a qualifying offer and its compensation picks, but Houston would be a tough sell players seeking "pillow" contracts, since playing in obscurity doesn't make for the best showcase. In this climate, the only reliable options are losing, which guarantees a high place in the draft protected from the potential loss that comes from signing a player tendered a qualifying offer or buying talent and trading it away. Houston has done both, but the tide is now shifting to an approach that favors the second more than the first.
Houston has had a fairly good offseason, nabbing Dexter Fowler from the Rockies and Jesus Guzman from the Padres in trades and landing Scott Feldman with a three-year, $30 million deal. All three are still young enough and under team control for long enough that they could be role players on an Astros team that does play meaningful baseball as the leaves begin to change colors, but their potential trade value is also a major consideration for Houston. At the trade deadline, teams are constantly seeking outfield bats, starting pitching and late-inning relievers and Houston can deliver the goods in 2014 and 2015 thanks to this offseason. These players will improve the team some as well, which moves them away from the security of the top pick, but after the embarrassment of a 111-loss season and a zero Nielsen rating, that is a small and necessary sacrifice. Of all the players that Houston has signed this offseason, no one is better potential trade bait than Crain and no one can deliver them more bang for the few measly bucks they have had to commit.
Crain's deal is worth just $3.25 million, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports and while that might be a sore loss if Crain never recovers from the arm issues that plagued his 2013 season, it is peanuts for a pitcher with his stuff if he is healthy. The return for relievers isn't always eye-popping, but teams in contention are often more than happy to give up high-ceiling talent in the low minors for a dependable late inning arm. Crain can help the Astros win back a few fans by showing that he still fits that description, then bring in a return value that could double or triple the cost the Astros's laid out for him.
The move is becoming old hat for Luhnow and the Astros. To find a comp for what the Houston GM is trying to do with Crain, we don't have to look any further than the 2013 Astros and Jose Veras. Luhnow signed Veras for one-year, $2 million last season and installed the 32-year-old veteran as his closer. Veras was solid in the role with a 2.93 ERA in 43 innings and 19 saves. Luhnow then flipped him for 19-year-old prospect Danry Vasquez from the relief-pitching-deprived Tigers. Vasquez is far from a top-100 type, but he has upside and going by John Sickel's pre-2013 rating, which had him as a B- level prospect (a rating he likely improved upon slightly with his performance before the trade) and using Victor Wang's model for prospect valuation, he represents a potential value that tops out somewhere between $5.5 million and $7 million (depending on how you calculate inflation since Wang's original research).
Crain costs a little more and has more risk than Veras, but he has been a better pitcher as well. Prior to the injury, his 2013 season was miles above anything Veras had ever done. He topped 11 K/9 over his last 84 2/3 innings and in the small sample that was his 2013, he flashed greater control than ever before as well. If he comes back healthy and slides into the closer's role for Houston, he should command more than Veras. That would almost guarantee them a player win firmly in the $6 million value range and if circumstances aligned just right, the return value could top $10 million.
For a team in the Astros position, that type of bet is one they can't make often enough. Money is always a precious thing, but finding the kind of risk that offer a possible eight-figure return for a mere $3.25 million dollar investment is hard to do in baseball. Better teams can't risk important innings on this type of arbitrage, but Houston has no reason not to. This is the type of strategy the current CBA demands of teams short on talent and even though Houston will keep losing on the field for the time being, they are playing this game the right way.
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